Summit County ski areas use seed collecting, restoration to mend impacts on local environment

Volunteers gather seeds at Copper Mountain Resort. The ski resort won the Golden Eagle Innovation in Sustainability Award from the National Ski Areas Association for its conservation efforts.
Curtis DeVore/Copper Mountain

Expansions and daily operations at ski areas can affect the local environment, and ski area leaders are looking to offset their impacts.

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area has a goal of reaching carbon neutral by 2025. To do that, sustainability manager Mike Nathan said that avoiding the disturbance of the local environment in the first place has been a major strategy in larger projects that A-Basin pursues and completes. This, he said, can include going well under constraints made by the U.S. Forest Service. This could include taking 5% of trees in an area instead of the allotted 20% or limbing a tree — or cutting the limbs on the bottom 10 feet — instead of cutting down the entire tree. 

“When it came to this kind of activity, we even went more granular than that,” he said. “Our line-level trail crew staff — a lot of them came from ski patrol or terrain park or other mountain operations — these guys got a crash course in identifying alpine wetland plants, so that they could avoid them with their footfalls and not have repetitive-use trails get formed in the tundra. They basically really avoided having any kind of just lasting visual impacts on these areas.”

Nathan added that projects also focus on education. This does not just include informing the public about its projects. It also involves talking with guests about the natural environment of the ski area and what plants and animals inhabit it. 

“We’re very focused on the native seed mixes that we use,” Nathan added. “Even going above and beyond with transplanting and finding things we know we want to beautify — like the wedding venue. Rather than have a bunch of bouquets of floral and cultivated varieties, we know there’s some really beautiful plants out there on the mountain that you can’t see when the bride walks from the chairlift to the altar. If we just move that bush, and use the plant that’s there, we’ve accomplished what we’re going for.”

Jeff Grasser, project and efficiency manager for Copper Mountain Resort, said that the resort is continuing native seed collection at Copper in order to boost plant growth on the slopes during the warmer months. Since 2019, Copper staff and local volunteers have collected seeds in order to replant them in areas that were disturbed by ski trails. Seeds are kept in a refrigerator during ski season and colder months for preservation. Grasser said evidence points to a correlation between biodiversity and an ecosystem’s ability to store carbon.  

“Ski slopes tend to get stuck in primary succession where they’re kind of sparse, not a lot of biodiversity, perhaps some bare ground,” Grasser said. “It has to do with that continued disturbance. As Copper was constructed 50 years ago, as an ecologist, I would expect to see the ski slopes to be further along this line of succession. … We believe that we have the ability to help out here through our own seed collecting — and then our secondary restoration methods.”

Colorado ski areas are not the only ones looking to offset disturbances. Hilary Arens, director of sustainability and resources at Snowbird Resort in Utah, said that staff collected seeds from the mountain, germinated them over the winter in a local greenhouse and then replanted them in order to increase biodiversity. For another project, by limiting motor vehicle access on a certain road to restore a riparian environment, more alpine plants were able to be grow back. 

“The thing that we were really most interested in seeing so far was if Snowbird could be growing vegetation on here long term without having to do anything on it. And we were,” Arens said. “These were just out here in June of this year, and you can see it’s still growing. These are only 10-foot-by-10-foot plots, but it gives us a lot of hope for expanding this. Our hope is to eventually do something on some of the slopes that go down to the creek.”

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